Fire Season in New Mexico...Same Story or a New Course?
Each summer, New Mexicans expect “fire season.” Signs warn us about fire danger, and the news keeps us posted on blazes across the state. We all know that fires are natural in forests—part of nature’s cycle. But New Mexicans also know that the fires we’ve seen in recent years are not natural. In 2011 and 2012, the Wallow Fire, Whitewater-Baldy, Las Conchas, and the Little Bear Fire have all set records for their size and destruction. We’ve seen hundreds of homes destroyed, hundreds of millions of dollars in fire-related costs, and hundreds of thousands of acres left charred.
The natural question to ask is, “Why?” None of us want this summer to look like previous summers—with our homes in danger and our favorite spots obliterated. We want to know what’s going wrong—why fire prevention efforts are not working, and what needs to change.
Last summer, I asked those questions. The questions were never about firefighters. Time and again, as I’ve worked with the men and women fighting the fires on the ground, I’ve been impressed and amazed by their consistent courage, dedication, professionalism, and hard work. But even some of these brave firefighters had some questions about the forest management decisions made before their teams were called in. And as their representative, I considered it my job to ask.
The more I asked, the more I heard from New Mexicans, from people throughout the West, and from retired Forest Service personnel. People said I was asking the same questions they wanted answers to. And they told me to keep asking.
One of these people was Bill Derr, who retired as a special agent investigating wildfires for the California Region of the U.S. Forest Service. Mr. Derr agreed to thoroughly research the fires last summer, and provided an independent report to answer some of the questions we were asking.
His report found that a major reason for recent fires’ severity is “a virtual cessation of harvesting of valuable forest products.” In other words, we’re importing lumber from other countries, while the trees in our own forests dry out and become kindling for devastating fires. Decades ago, a deluge of hasty regulations designed to protect the spotted owl put timber mills across the West out of business. The argument went that logging destroyed the owls’ habitat. Those who argued that responsible thinning actually protected owls’ habitat were ignored. But now, decades later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reversed course, releasing an official document that says fire is a primary threat to the owl, and that thinning is an important measure to protect its habitat.
The report also highlights how radical environmentalists abuse our legal system to line their pockets and stop commonsense forest management policies. The John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute, a group that actually believes there is no such thing as a catastrophic wildfire, has filed a petition to list the black backed woodpecker, a bird found in California, as an endangered species. This bird hunts for insects in burned-out trees. The extremists filed the petition to force the Forest Service to let the forests burn, so that the woodpecker can hunt. The result is a destroyed landscape, the killing of other species, habitat devastation, and pollution of the air. This is not conservation—it’s ridiculousness.
The Forest Service once set a goal of containing any fire by 10:00 am the next day. Since then, however, the Forest Service adopted a “Let it Burn” policy of letting fires run their course, hoping they would burn themselves out. That might work in a healthy forest. But it’s a recipe for disaster in the dry, overcrowded forests we now have in New Mexico.
The Derr Report criticizes the “Let It Burn” policy, and calls for a return to the 10:00 AM policy.
The Administration, by contrast, has indicated that it will stick with the “Let It Burn” policy. And New Mexicans, therefore, face another dangerous fire season. We are only left with charred trees and more questions about the future of our homes, communities and livelihoods.
Recently, I cosponsored H.R. 818, the Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act. The language in this bill was developed as I received the results of the report, and seeks to address many of the forest management problems that lead to catastrophic wildfires. It gives state governments an active role in forest management to protect against these infernos. But this bill is only one step. More action is needed if we are to end the dangerous policies that have allowed fires to ravage the West.
That action must come from you. It is up to you. Hold these agencies accountable, and make your voice heard. Together, we can make “fire season” a less terrifying thing in New Mexico.